Want to Foster a Culture of Learning? Adopt an Organizational Skills Language

Theresa S. Gebert & Christine E. Looser
February 23, 2022
“The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.” -Peter Senge

Think about your work over the past year. How much have you improved on your areas of weakness? Are you excited about the opportunity to grow? What steps can you take to evolve further? If you’re not sure, you’re like most people. According to Gallup, 80% of employees feel unengaged at work, costing the global economy $8.1 trillion a year. Performance reviews are supposed to sharpen focus on growth areas, but a paltry 14% of employees strongly agree that their performance reviews inspire them to improve. Academic research suggests that performance reviews actually decrease performance 33 percent of the time. Here, we’ll dig into why most organizations don’t encourage growth and what the science of learning suggests you do to fix that.

Most evaluative processes are unhelpful because they are designed descriptively, not actionably. They say what you should be good at, but do not explain how to be good at it. Statements like, “Excels at teamwork” or, “Effectively communicates with clients” do not provide a sufficient level of granularity to help people learn. Defining a competency model with sub-competencies and specific behavioral indices is a good start, but if a competency model sits on a shelf except for hiring and annual reviews, it’s not doing your employees or your organization much good. Same goes for a skills bank; if you’ve created a complicated model with an overwhelming level of granularity and little intersection across roles, learners may not see how their skills relate to others’ work or to the overall success of the organization. Rather than thinking of competencies and skills just for individualized evaluations, we need to think in terms of shared, foundational concepts that can be taught, applied, and brought to life within a community.

We call this process of identifying useful skills, explicitly teaching them to learners, and creating the conditions where the skills can be discussed and collaboratively used, developing an organizational skills language. Rather than an annual performance review or skills bank that serves as an occasional inventory system, a language is social and used every day. Some scientists liken language to a living thing, it evolves and acts as cultural glue. Putting skills at the center of your organizational language ensures alignment on important ideas and accelerates learning. Repeated opportunities for collaborative usage mean that foundational skills can become habits and norms that shift behavior in meaningful ways.

Here are three examples of organizations with different audiences, contexts, and developmental levels who built an organizational skills language for growth and development.

1. Minerva University is a US-based non-profit, private, 600-student 8-year-old challenger university that has four core competencies for all students: thinking critically, thinking creatively, interacting effectively, and communicating effectively. Each competency is broken down into sub-competencies and each sub-competency is broken down into granular skills called “Habits of Mind”, skills Minerva believes are crucial for creating intelligent, collaborative, effective members of society. Importantly, these skills are durable and transferable, meaning that they have a long half-life and are useful across contexts.
For instance, the Habit of Mind #audience is shorthand for the skill of understanding others' perspectives and tailoring your message to them. This skill can be used as easily in a business class as in a biology class. After graduation, it will remain useful whether learners become a procurement specialist negotiating with a supplier, a scientist writing an article, or a manager writing a memo to their team.

Minerva has identified 72 durable, transferable skills. It is unlikely that the need for them will go away anytime soon and the ability to use them across contexts creates opportunities for learning transfer. At Minerva, the Habits of Mind are threaded throughout disciplines. All Habits of Mind are introduced in the first year and then tagged to interactive sessions, homework assignments, and collaborative projects in every single course students take. First-year grades are revised depending on how well people use the Habits of Mind across all disciplines in their upper-level classes, creating a system that rewards skill usage across time and over context. The Habits of Mind become an organizational language within the Minerva community; people frequently find themselves calling out the skills when they are not in the classroom.

2. Bridgewater Associates is a US-based, 47-year-old hedge fund with ~$140B AUM which boasts a competitive edge due to its “pioneering workplace culture that relies on truthful and transparent communication.” This culture is defined by a set of principles and facilitated by a set of tools to facilitate an idea meritocracy, which Bridgewater credits for creating better performance over time. The Bridgewater competency model breaks the company principles into specific, desired attributes for doing meaningful work and building meaningful relationships. Examples are “be open-minded and assertive at the same time” or “understand how people came by their opinions.”  The attributes are treated as an evolving work-in-progress that evolves. New hires receive in-depth training on the principles, and employees receive periodic re-training.

Importantly, Bridgewater uses a continuous, open (within the company) peer-to-peer feedback system called “Dots,” a technological tool built to enable the principle “don’t hide your observations about people.” After an interaction, people can rate each other 1-10 on any of the 50-plus key attributes and describe the event that caused the Dot. Frequently collecting information from a wide variety of stakeholders across a variety of interactions helps you form a clearer picture of yourself and those you work with. This information helps ensure that people are growing and are good fits for their roles. For instance, if your role requires you to be particularly good at “detail orientation” and “process thinking,” but over time your Dots reveal a weakness there but relative strengths in “creative thinking” and “community mindedness,” the person and their manager can use this information to explore other roles at the company that may be a better fit.

The Dots tool and the shared language of Bridgewater’s attributes mitigates several issues that crop up in talent review processes like selection bias, unreliable ratings across different raters, and a rater’s inability to effectively distinguish between distinct traits. Selection bias is reduced since anyone can rate anyone on any interaction, not just a manager or specifically chosen reviewers. Data scientists continuously refine the Dots tool to ensure the ratings are comparable across raters. Most critically, the ratings are reliable because engaging with the attributes via continuous training, discussion, and Dots usage creates an organizational skills language. People are aligned on what each attribute means and why it is important.

3. The MiSK Foundation is a Saudi Arabian non-profit foundation. Their flagship leadership program was built in partnership with Esade Business School and brings together senior leaders with at least 15 years in leadership positions for an executive education program that accelerates the country’s push towards a more open, inclusive, and vibrant society. Learners have an executive coach and complete a group capstone project. They also gather as a group for intensive, week-long sessions every other month for nine months, which is supported by sixteen months of interactive virtual sessions so participants can continue learning in the flow of work. The program spans five years, a thousand learners, and six different teaching partners, including Esade, the Center for Creative Leadership, Accenture, CERN, Minerva Project, and Willis Towers Watson. The 2030 Leader’s Program is an ambitious program with many moving parts.

To ensure coherence, MiSK created a taxonomy of durable, transferable skills that align with the country's strategic goals. While each teaching partner provides their own content, they integrate the learning taxonomy.  By tagging diverse content with the learning taxonomy items, learners are able to see how different core concepts are useful over time and across topics. On the surface, #SoundDecisionMaking may look very different when you’re considering a promotion for a junior employee and when you're analyzing investment options, but the fundamental principles of decision analysis are similar.

Importantly, the learning taxonomy serves as the central feature of the program’s impact measurement system. Learners are asked to self-assess their progress on the skills throughout the program, and receive 360 feedback from colleagues. Coaches review feedback with learners to develop individual growth plans. Learners tag the taxonomy skills in their capstone projects and their coursework. Virtual discussion sections and workshops, built around the learning taxonomy, bring the skills to the forefront and serve as brief check-ins to keep the organizational language top of mind.

While these three organizations are very different, their approaches to learning have important similarities. Whether it is preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, creating a deep understanding of the global economy, or training leaders to shape the future of a nation, all three organizations know what they want to achieve and break that down into specific, actionable, aspirational skills. Curricula, onboarding, and executive education courses are intentionally built around the skills so that learners know what they should be good at and how they can improve. The skills come to life in a community by embedding them in cohort-based courses and in the flow of work to create a continuous, collaborative learning journey. Feedback and reflection are frequent and fluid; they can occur any time in response to any event, not only during annual reviews. In short, they’ve cultivated an organizational skills language for growth that could live and breathe within their community.

Here are a few things you can do to build your own living, breathing, organizational skills language.

  1. Identify the set of durable, transferable skills that will help your organization thrive. Learning is a competitive advantage if you can align what people are learning with the goals of the company so focus on durable, transferable skills that all employees need now and in the future. While technical skills vary with specific roles, there are probably things you want everyone to have, like data literacy, personal agency, judicious decision making, and creative problem-solving. Focusing on broadly applicable first principles and then chunking them into granular skills will help learners master concepts more quickly. It may be helpful to look at competency models from other organizations (for example, IBM’s Data Science competency model) to see how they apply to your company’s structure, mission, and values.
  2. Intentionally build your educational programs to introduce and enhance the skills language. Learners learn best when they see the importance of what they are learning, so introduce the skills language in onboarding as a vital feature of the community. Intentionally design education programs that explicitly tag the skills you want people to focus on. Interactive peer learning under the guidance of an expert facilitator ensures there is a shared understanding of the meaning and importance of each skill. It also builds a community that brings the skills to life outside of formal training. As a first step, include the competency model in onboarding materials. Then develop a quarterly, interactive learning experience that reinforces the organizational skills language.
  3. Craft opportunities for the social and continuous usage of the skills language. Learning is most effective when it is social, and when learners are given the opportunity to practice over time and across contexts so design opportunities for people to apply the durable, transferable skills in everyday conversation. When tackling a large problem, pause and ask the group, how might we #breakitdown? In meetings, push back on assumed solutions and question if you’re really solving the #rightproblem; prompt people to “understand how people came by their opinions.” Remind people to evaluate initiatives relative to your organizational #purpose. Design conditions that prompt learners to become collectively fluent in your skills language.
  4. Build an impact measurement system around frequent reflection and feedback on the skills language. Self-assessment and feedback are critical for learning so be sure people can see how they are evolving over time. Ask learners to self-assess frequently and encourage colleagues to explicitly call out skill usage. Highlight good utilizations and push back when people are not effectively employing skills that the organization agrees are crucial. Where possible, use technology to capture this data in real-time rather than a once-a-year retroactive performance review.

To deliver on the promise of learning as a competitive advantage, organizations must inspire learners to see why specific skills are important, intentionally teach those skills, craft opportunities for collaborative skill use, and track skill growth. Intentionally designing a skills language and seeding it within your community creates a self-sustaining engine of individual and organizational growth.

This blog was originally published by Chief Learning Officer.

Theresa Gebert is the Director of Data Strategy & AI Ethics at Afiniti and Christine E. Looser, Ph.D., is a Senior Academic Director at Minerva Project. Both have been Professors at Minerva University.

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